- Sam Meston
The year is 1422. On the eastern coast of Africa, a colossal fleet larger than any seen before arrives at the shore. The fleet consists of over three hundred ships, carrying a total crew of 28,000 and countless treasures. The largest of these may have measured up to 135 metres in length, making them among the largest wooden ships ever built (five times larger than Columbus’ Santa Maria). This armada undoubtedly strikes fear and awe into those who witness it. But the men who step off those ships have not come for conquest. They had arrived to trade treasures and declare the majesty of the new Son of Heaven, the Yongle Emperor of the Great Ming. Then they continued on their way.
The commander of this great expedition was a eunuch admiral named Zheng He. Born into a Yunnanese Muslim family as Ma He, as a young boy he was captured by the Ming army as they stamped out the last pockets of Mongol control. Sent to serve in the house of Prince Zhu Di (later Yongle), he proved to be a very competent administrator and gained the trust of his master, eventually helping him seize the throne during the intrigue that followed his father’s death. The new Emperor wished for the world to witness his glory, so he ordered Zheng to lead the fleet around the Indian Ocean, establish trade networks and collect tribute from the world. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng embarked on a total of seven voyages, visiting Malaya, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa, from which he brought back a plethora of exotic items. These included various animals, the most prized being a giraffe from Malindi, Kenya, identified as the legendary qilin creature of Chinese folklore. The arrival of such rare creatures to the imperial court was said to be proof of Heaven’s blessing. At this time, Ming China established itself as the undisputed dominant naval power of the Indo-Pacific.
And yet, after Zheng’s death in 1433, the voyages were ceased and the ships were left to rot. Yongle’s successors were not as outward looking as he was, viewing the voyages as a wasteful vanity project, and declared a closed border policy, with the exception of the traditional tribute envoys. In practice, the closed border policies had little impact. Throughout the dynasty, China underwent a transformative commercial revolution which fuelled, and was fuelled by, flourishing maritime trade networks which Zheng He had helped establish. The imperial government, however, proved unable to take advantage of these developments, seeing an influx of foreign merchants as a threat to social order. As a result, an official closed border policy was operated, citing the threat of ‘Japanese’ pirates (many of these illegal traders were in fact Chinese).
Much attention has been given to the idea that the Ming somehow lacked the stomach for a colonial empire of the type which Europeans later proved to be so profitable. But this is besides the point. Counterfactuals aside, it is evident that the treasure voyages did have a profound effect on world history. And when it comes to China’s long-belated patronage of their greatest explorer, this works to their advantage. Having endured its own ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of western imperialism, China has sought to establish itself as a vanguard of the global south. In this context, Zheng has become an icon of President Xi’s brainchild, the famous Belt and Road Initiative. Xi has extolled Zheng as an ambassador for China as a benevolent global power, for example in this speech at the 2014 China International Friendship Conference:
“Over 600 years ago, a Chinese navigator named Zheng He led what was then the most powerful fleet in the world on seven expeditions to the Pacific Ocean and the western Indian Ocean. They visited over 30 countries and regions, without taking a single inch of land. They were there to sow the seed of peace and friendship, leaving behind many stories of friendship and cultural exchanges with the local people.”
Notably, this seeks to emphasise the contrast between the peaceful engagement China carried out in its foreign relations, as against the conquering zeal of foreign powers during its ‘Century of Humiliation’. Xi continues:
“The modern history of China before the founding of the PRC is a tragic chapter of humiliation, disaster and defeat. But it is also a great history of the Chinese nation’s resistance against foreign aggression and its struggle for national independence. The Chinese people, who have been through such trials and tribulations, cherish peace and will, under no circumstances, impose its own woeful experiences upon other nations.”
Zheng is surely an ideal ambassador for the BRI, bolstered by the respect he already enjoys overseas. In South East Asia he is a venerated figure among the significant ethnic Chinese population, whose existence may be traced back to the connections forged by Zheng and his crew. The historian Zeng Ling writes in an article for Pengpai on the appreciation of Zheng He in ethnically Chinese communities in Southeast Asia:
“In Southeast Asia, there are many materials about Zheng He that have not been recorded in Chinese classics. In addition to Chinese, most of these documents are written in Malay, English, Indonesian, Dutch, etc. [...] Veneration of Zheng He did not originate in mainland China but in Southeast Asia, formed by different ethnic groups such as Chinese who practised traditional Chinese folk religions, Muslim Malays, Buddhist Thais, and local aboriginals who practised other religions. [...] These ‘Temples of the Three Treasures’ [dedicated to Zheng] that still exist in various parts of Southeast Asia, as well as religious ceremonies and celebrations dedicated to Zheng He, have formed an integral part of Southeast Asian folk culture.”
These Chinese communities today form an entrepreneurial class in the region, and it is estimated that 80% of publicly listed companies by stock market capitalisation and 85% of billionaires in the region are from the Chinese minority. This so-called ‘bamboo network’ in which ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs operate provides an indispensable gateway for China’s economic interaction with the ASEAN states.
Zheng He’s legacy also lives on in Africa, another key region of the BRI strategy. On Kenya’s Lamu island, local tradition has it that some of the Chinese sailors were shipwrecked there and remained on the island. Archaeological and DNA evidence has indeed corroborated theories of a Chinese presence; six living descendants have been identified, one of whom, Mwamaka Shariff, received a scholarship to study in China. Chinese media enthusiastically picked up on the story, which served as a useful PR campaign for Chinese investment in the area. Last year, a large Chinese-built port went into operation on the island, as part of a larger planned regional transport corridor. Once again, Zheng seems the perfect ambassador for China’s ‘peaceful rise’.
There is another side to the story, however. It is true that Zheng did not seek military conquest, declaring nominal allegiance to the Emperor was enough to satisfy China’s assertions to ‘Middle Kingdom’ status. The ‘carrot’ of the treasure fleet’s wealth and generosity proved effective most of the time, but in some cases the ‘stick’ was employed to equal effect. In the Straits of Malacca, Zheng came to blows with the notorious pirate Chen Zuyi, who was captured and sent back to the capital for execution. In Sri Lanka, the fleet became embroiled in a conflict when they were attacked by a claimant to the throne of Kotte. This insult was quickly repaid with a swift defeat and subjugation of the kingdom, upon which Zheng had an allied king placed on the throne. A similar incident occurred in Sumatra, where a vassal ruler had been deposed by an upstart and pleaded to the Ming for help. Zheng, feeling obliged to help a loyal vassal, intervened with force and soon had him returned to the throne. So, China’s great explorer was perhaps not entirely pacifistic. Even if that was his intention, he was a representative of the Son of Heaven, and an insult to the Son of Heaven from barbarians could not be taken lying down. Of course this aspect is not the one emphasised in contemporary Chinese diplomacy, but it is still important to understand the ambitions of a resurgent maritime power. The PRC has not been involved in a war for over forty years, but has been rapidly building its military strength, in particular its navy - now the world’s largest. The goal, in Xi’s own words, is to have the capability to “fight and win”. Consider also that, while maintaining mutually beneficial economic relationships with the nations of Southeast Asia, the PLA Navy has nevertheless been proactive in asserting its claims in the South China Sea. Reactions have varied, with the Philippines taking the matter to court as a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), while other ASEAN members such as Cambodia have vetoed proposals of joint condemnation. In the Great Ming and in the People’s Republic, the carrot is offered, but there are no qualms in using the stick.
We now skip ahead two centuries, to 1624, to discuss our second Zheng. Zheng Chenggong was born in Hirado, Japan, to a Japanese mother and a Chinese father. That father was Zheng Zhilong, a savvy merchant turned pirate king who had amassed the largest fleet in the East China Sea. By this time, the seas around China were buzzing with commerce conducted by Asians and Europeans alike. Zheng Zhilong rose to prominence, first by collaborating with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and building a fleet to challenge the Ming navy (much neglected since Zheng He’s time), then, when he had achieved naval dominance, negotiated a peace with the Ming and pledged his allegiance to the Emperor. Zheng Chenggong was groomed as the successor to his father’s privateer navy, and in the meantime became a successful graduate of the imperial examinations.
Times were changing, however, as Zheng found himself coming of age during the Ming’s twilight years. In 1644, as the army of the rebel Li Zicheng marched on Beijing, the Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself in the imperial park. From the north, the unstoppable Manchu force stormed into the capital and quickly displaced Li, securing the authority of the new Qing dynasty in the Forbidden City. The Qing conquest and pacification of China would take another forty years, however, as persistent Ming loyalist resistance continued to back pretenders from the Ming imperial family in the south. Zheng Zhilong was a major resistance leader, establishing a loyalist bastion in Fujian, supporting the claim of imperial clansman Zhu Yujian as the Longwu Emperor. This did not last long however, and within two years the pretender had been captured and Zheng’s hometown of Anping placed under siege, causing him to surrender. His wife Tagawa refused to follow suit and instead committed suicide. Against his father’s urging, Zheng Chenggong continued the fight. He was granted the title Koxinga (The Hokkien pronunciation of Guoxingye ‘Lord of the Imperial House’). Koxinga gained control of most of the south east coast, before sailing into the Yangzi to capture Nanjing. Unfortunately he waited too long to attack, giving the Manchus time for reinforcement and ultimately forcing him to retreat. The Qing continued to press into the south, defeating one pretender after another. With resistance on the mainland seeming a lost cause, Koxinga turned his attention back to the seas and set his sights on Taiwan. The island was then under the control of the Zheng family’s erstwhile partners, the Dutch. In 1661 he besieged their capital at Fort Zeelandia (present day Tainan), in order to drive them out and establish his own loyalist Kingdom of Dongning. Of his expulsion of the Dutch, he remarked:
"Hitherto this island had always belonged to China, and the Dutch had doubtless been permitted to live there, seeing that the Chinese did not require it for themselves; but requiring it now, it was only fair that Dutch strangers, who came from far regions, should give way to the masters of the island."
The pirate king was welcomed by the island’s inhabitants, Chinese and aboriginal alike. He continued to rule the island and resist the Qing until his death in 1662. In 1683 a Qing naval campaign successfully forced the surrender of Koxinga’s grandson, Zheng Keshuang, and Taiwan finally submitted to the Qing.
It is not hard to see why historical interest in Koxinga has been revived, given that Taiwan is one of the most hotly contested flashpoints of global politics. Koxinga can be found as a venerated saint in many temples in Taiwan and Fujian. During the Japanese occupation, colonial authorities were keen to emphasise his Japanese ancestry, ‘bushido’ values and resistance to the west, while neglecting his loyalty to China. Upon the KMT’s retreat to the island, its leader Chiang Kai-shek was removed from the land that he claimed legitimacy to, and was thus forced to reframe his legitimacy as a noble exile. To that end, what better figure to identify with than the pirate king? Koxinga was venerated as a previous incarnation of Chiang. The parallels are not difficult to see - an exile escaping from the barbarian usurpers, finding refuge in Taiwan in the hopes of one day restoring the ‘legitimate’ dynasty to the motherland. Official histories described his arrival as ‘futai’, (retrocession) the term used to describe the return of Taiwan to Chinese authority following the Japanese surrender. Zheng Yanfen, one of Chiang’s officials who claimed descent from Koxinga, was a spearhead of this historical cult. Chiang’s calligraphy can be found on many statues around the island, with plaques identifying both as ‘minzu yingxiong’ (national hero). The irony, of course, being that Koxinga’s holdout, much like Chiang’s, was ultimately in vain - both would die in Taiwan, separated from their ancestral home.
Since Chiang’s death, the shifting of the political mainstream towards Taiwanese nationalism has brought with it an ambivalent relationship with Chinese patriotic heroes. The Zheng Chenggong festival is still celebrated every year in Guoxing, the original landing spot of his fleet. The event features a foot race in which teams carry makeshift ‘boats’ and run to catch flags. However, in 2019 the government ceased sending representatives to the event, with spokesperson Kolas Yotaka, a Taiwanese aboriginal, denouncing Koxinga as an “invader”. These shifts are reflected in popular culture, for example, a graphic novel published by comic artist Li Lung-chieh depicting Koxinga as a villain, with deliberate analogy to Chiang. On the mainland, however, Zheng has attracted increasing interest. While rumours circulated in the early 2010s that China’s first aircraft carrier would be named Shi Lang, after the Qing admiral who seized Taiwan from Zheng’s descendants, the government was quick to deny, instead christening it the Liaoning. The PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang recently hailed Koxinga as a hero who “liberated Taiwan” and “upheld the dignity of the Chinese people” - Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council responded with a dismissal of the so-called “Koxinga lie”. Indeed, China has found much to admire in the island’s original siniciser - a defeat of western imperialism, naval strength and dominance of China’s maritime backyard, proliferation of Chinese culture, and undying loyalty to the motherland. On the other hand, the mainland’s embrace of Zheng as a national hero has arguably pushed him out of favour among opponents of reunification.
Besides the obvious similarities (both named Zheng, both were naval leaders serving the Ming, etc.), the two Zheng's form an interesting comparison because they symbolise different sides of modern China’s global ambitions. Zheng He is the natural poster boy of the Belt and Road, a symbol of China as the core of international commercial and cultural exchange, and a useful contrast to European colonialism. Zheng He represents the image of a “peaceful rise” - ambition without aggression. Zheng Chenggong, however, has become a representative of the other side of the Chinese dream; “national rejuvenation”, and its entailed goal of “national reunification” - that is to say, the will and capability to take “what has always belonged to China”, even if that means direct conflict with those ‘red-haired barbarians’ from across the seas.